A/N: Hello, darlings. Sorry to those of you who received an update and then an error message. I was told it wasn't working and ended up accidentally deleting it while I was putzing around. (I was at a bar… whoops).
The fall day was cool. When a breeze rustled his hair, Edward transferred the reins of the carriage to one hand so he could adjust the blankets around his four-month-old daughter. He smiled when he saw she was awake and let her take a firm grip on one of his fingers.
"Good morning, Angel."
From her place in the basket beside him, Angelica Rachel Masen graced him with a toothless baby grin. She gurgled, trying to guide his finger to her mouth. She grunted with effort, kicking her legs so hard the blankets fell away again.
"None of that," he admonished, tucking the blankets around her again. "We wouldn't want you to catch cold."
A tendril of fear curled itself around Edward's stomach and squeezed. He was glad he'd been too busy helping his father-in-law secure a few things that had come loose and he hadn't eaten much of his noontime meal. He had to swallow around a painful lump in his throat as he tried not to think about how fragile the lives of babes were.
Angel cooed at him and then giggled-that happy baby sound that could warm the cockles of even the coldest heart. The knot of fear eased, and Edward smiled back at his daughter. She was a fat, healthy, happy baby with pink cheeks and bright eyes. "Your papa is very foolish," he said. "Momma is always telling me it doesn't make much sense to worry about things that haven't happened yet and might not ever happen. She said I may as well concentrate on enjoying you while you're still our little bug. After all, you were just a mite only yesterday, it seems, and look at you now-a great big baby of four whole months. Momma's right. I should enjoy my baby before she becomes my little girl."
He sat back, glancing out at the the trail before he looked again to his daughter. "I know you've enjoyed staying with Grandpa, but I think you'll like having a space all our own. You'll be the little lady of the house instead of being under your Uncle Billy's thumb. One day you'll have a passel of brothers and sisters to boss around."
The idea had him lapsing into silence again as he considered this pretty vision of the future. Another tendril of worry tugged at him.
He'd taken Bella to his bed just a few days before for the first time since Angelica was born. The thought he'd made her pregnant again had him both hopeful and dismayed. There would be more children for them. He knew that, and the thought of adding to his brood made him proud and pleased. Still, he wasn't oblivious to the fact each pregnancy was a risk.
"Life is a risk," Bella had told him when he'd hesitated in taking her. She pulled him down with her in bed, stroking and touching and tempting him. "Are you planning to deny me the rest of our lives?"
He couldn't of course. He hadn't. She was far too bewitching, and he was too in love with her. It was the kind of love that had to be expressed physically; keeping it locked inside him would have killed him.
"I've so missed you, my wanton witch," he said before he buried himself inside her.
Speak of the devil... Edward looked over his shoulder to see Bella push herself up from where she'd been napping in the back of the carriage. He heard her pat the wooden floor and then she gasped. "The baby!"
"She's here, love. She's fine. Angel just wanted to ride up front with her Papa, didn't you, sweetheart?"
Angel gave a loud squeal, swinging her balled fists and kicking her feet to join the conversation. Edward lent Bella his hand, keeping her steady as she climbed over the seat. When she was settled she took the baby from the basket. Angel greeted her mother with happy noises, and Edward warmed, looking on his precious girls with a smile.
"You didn't sleep long," Edward said, reaching over to tuck a strand of hair back under Bella's cap.
She yawned and blinked, rolling her neck and eliciting a series of small cracks. "I'll be fine. It's getting late, and I'd imagine we won't be too long on the trail."
"No," Edward agreed. "We'll stop soon. I was hoping to make it as far as the next town, but the wagon moves slower than I remember." He looked behind him as though he would spot the larger wagon driven by Charlie and containing most of his and Bella's earthly possessions. "We'll have to camp tonight. I'm sorry."
"What on earth are you sorry about?"
"We'll have to sleep on the floor outside most likely. Well, you could lay in the back of the carriage with Angel, I suppose, but-"
She bumped his shoulder. "Hush, you ninny. I'll stay with you." She rested her head on his shoulder. "It'll be like old times."
"Old times," he murmured and shook his head. Traveling the trail felt like another lifetime. He supposed it had been.
They did stop only a few hours later. He and Bella went about setting up camp while they waited for Charlie and Seth to catch up.
It was amazing how quickly Edward had forgotten his old life. Once it would have been second nature to prepare a camp for an evening's rest. He'd had it down to a science once, but then again, he had shared the work with at least three other men. Now he stood in the clearing, hands on his hips as he tried to remember everything there was to do and what order it should all be done in.
"It's a good thing you thought to put the supplies in the carriage," Bella said, pulling a set of pans from the back.
Fire. Of course. It was cold. They needed fire for warmth and cooking.
When Edward returned from gathering wood, he found Bella sitting with her back against a tree. She had a blanket over one shoulder, shielding Angel from the cold as she suckled. He stopped at the edge of the clearing to watch for a spell. He loved the serene look Bella got when she was feeding their daughter. She stared down, her smile so tender, and patted the baby as she hummed and rocked.
He allowed himself a few extra moments, thanking providence and the protective streak of Carlisle Cullen for this gift, this life. Then, he went to take care of his family.
~Two and a Half Years Later~
"Angel! Mercy, you were misnamed, weren't you? Come back here, you little hellion."
Bella made a last ditch lunge trying to corral her almost-three-year-old daughter. Angel had chubby, uncoordinated legs, but these days, Bella wasn't the height of grace. She managed to catch a wrist and held on for dear life. The child was covered from head to toe in soapy water and thus was very slippery.
"Momma, no." Angel giggled, kicking her feet in her merry game as Bella hoisted her up. "I'm all clean."
"Ha." Bella plunked the protesting toddler in the tub that sat in the middle of the kitchen. "Angelica Rachel, you sit yourself down or so help me, I'll change your name to Satan's Minion."
Angel splashed and fixed Bella with a winning grin-a miniature version of her father's smile and just as effective, as the little rascal doubtless knew. Bella sighed, feeling her irritation ebb. She eased herself down on the floor and picked up the soapy rag again. "Come on, little one. We're going to have guests. Don't you want to look pretty for our guests?"
Angel stomped a few times for the pleasure of seeing the water slosh wildly, but she finally sat back down in the tub, assuaging her mother's fear she would catch her death of cold. "Imma always pweety. Papa says."
"Yes, well, Papa is biased." Bella smiled at Angel's pinched expression as she poured water over her head. "Yes, baby girl. You are mighty precious. But people may not see it with all this dirt on you."
Some time later, Angel was clean and dressed in her Sunday best. Her long, auburn hair was brushed to a sheen and adorned by a pretty bow. She was a handsome child, and the fact Bella could see her own features mingled with Edward's would never cease to amaze her. But beyond that, she was truly resplendent, and Bella was smug with pleasure at the job she'd done. Oh, it was true enough the child would likely be rumpled and covered in mud five minutes after their guests arrived, but they would at least have a glimpse of her looking as cherubic as possible.
Bella took Angel up to the master bedroom and sat her on the middle of her bed with something clean to play with. She was bedraggled from her battle to get Angel and the house in the right condition for guests. Another wrestling match ensued, this one with her hair and clothes. Soon Bella was looking herself over in the mirror. She was pleased that the reflection that stared back looked the part she wanted to play: a self-assured, pretty mother and wife.
She glanced down and frowned. Well, from the neck up at least, she was satisfied.
It had been about a year since she'd last seen her father. This time, Charlie was bringing not only his family but most of the Cullen clan as well. Bella wanted nothing more than to appear all grown up-the matron of the large house that was quick becoming a central hub in the district they lived in.
Edward was a smart man and better educated than many in their growing community. He was a natural leader and successful in his business dealings. Men were beginning to look up to him, and it made their wives want to be in Bella's good graces.
But the Cullens had known Bella as a child and had known Edward when none of them, save perhaps Alice, would have believed he could be a good husband. Carlisle and Esme hadn't seen her since she was an inexperienced young mother trying her hardest not to weep as they rode away. They had their own family to return to after all. Though Bella didn't believe they'd judge her, she still wanted very much to put her best foot forward.
She wanted them all to be proud of her and of Edward.
Done with her personal renovations, Bella started to give the house one last look over. She quickly abandoned that pursuit, knowing she would drive herself crazy if she stopped to find all the imperfections in her home. She pulled Angel to her feet, ushering her downstairs and outside. They settled on the porch swing, Angel leaning against her side as she read.
Bella cut off mid-sentence, cocking her head when she thought she heard the clip-clop of horse hooves. She used the railing to pull herself to her feet. Leaning on the pillar, she craned her neck, watching the horizon. Angel came to stand at her side, and Bella moved her free hand from her middle to her daughter's shoulder, keeping them both steady.
Another minute passed before a rider appeared on the crest of the hill. Relief flooded over Bella, and she smiled so broadly her cheeks stretched with the effort.
Edward had been gone for two days. It was the first time since he'd left her at her father's house for three weeks that he'd been away from her more than twelve hours. It was a necessity, and she was in no condition to travel even as far as town. The likelihood any danger would have come to him wasn't very high. Still, when she saw him, Bella could admit to herself she'd been frightened for him. Small though the chance was, the area not too far off had been beset with strife between the natives and the settlers. That was just one of the possible fates that could have befallen her husband.
Bella acknowledged the weight of the worries and let it slip away just as quickly. Even after some years of marriage, her breath still caught whenever she saw him. He was a sight, to be sure. There was a reason she'd more than once caught her friends-married or not-trying to ogle him discreetly. Her fingers twitched at her sides. She couldn't wait to run her hands through his longish bronze locks, blown wild as they were from the ride.
His eyes swept the porch, found her, and he smiled. She saw him give the horse a nudge with his heels, urging the beast faster, easily outrunning the carriages that followed him.
Angel flung herself, hurrying down the four steps from porch to ground so fast, Bella yelped in alarm. The toddler made it to the bottom without incident and ran full tilt across the grass toward her father.
Bella followed at a much more tedious pace. She wished she could run, she wanted to, but she was far too ponderous for all that. She could wait a few more minutes for Edward to get to her.
He pulled the horse up short and dismounted. He picked Angel up and launched her high in the air. When she came back down, he cuddled her close, kissing her cheek even as he sprinted forward to get to Bella's side. Shifting his giggling daughter to his hip, Edward wasted no words. He put his arm around Bella's waist and pulled her to him.
His kiss wasn't fit for polite company by a longshot. The noise of the approaching carriages should have been enough to set her protesting-what would her father say-but Bella couldn't care about such paltry things as propriety just then. Two days away from him had been far too long.
As he kissed her, Edward's hand drifted to the swell of her belly. He broke their kiss and stroked the bulge with reverence. "I was so afraid to leave you," he murmured, pressing his hand to the apex. "I was afraid something would happen."
Bella smiled at him, rueful. They would never stop worrying for each other it seemed. "The doctor was here this morning. He said another month perhaps. We were all just fine."
He hummed his response and kissed her again. This kiss was much more chaste, likely allowing for the fact the carriages were almost on them. Three of them pulled to a stop just as Edward reluctantly let Bella go.
Within seconds, Bella found herself surrounded, not knowing who to hug first. It took her a moment to get her bearings, then she ducked out of Emmett's arms to find Alice.
After some struggle, Alice had borne her first child five months before. Brandon Emery Hale had been sickly from the start and had died at three months old. Bella couldn't fathom that kind of pain, and so when she found Alice, she wrapped her arms tightly around the other woman and clung. She loved Alice like a sister, and she wished with everything in her she could have been closer.
Alice sagged into the embrace as though she heard the words Bella couldn't say. Her breath hitched, and when she pulled back, her smile wavered. She said nothing at first but put her palm to Bella's stomach. "Look at you. Oh, Bella." She sniffled and nodded as though resolute. "It's a boy this time, I think."
Remembering that Alice had correctly prophesied Angel's birth, Bella put her hand over the other woman's on her belly. "That's what I've been telling Edward."
Jasper joined them then. He tucked his wife under one arm, sparing a kiss to her forehead as though he'd known she needed the comfort. He pulled Bella to him with his other arm and kissed her cheek. "It's good to see you, sugar. Congratulations."
She was hugged and kissed by the rest of the Cullens then before attention shifted to Angel. Edward had set her down, but she'd plastered herself behind his legs, burying her face in the back of his thighs, ducking bashfully as the Cullens tried to lure her out.
"Hello, sweetie. My goodness what a precious child you are." Esme brushed the tip of her finger down Angel's soft hair. "You really are named right, aren't you? You're an angel fresh from heaven."
Always drawn out by people fawning over her, Angel raised her head and took a tentative shuffle away from the protection of her father's height. "Mama said she's gonna name me Satan's Minnow."
"Angelica," Edward and Bella said together. Bella's cheeks flushed, but the others laughed.
Emmett squatted down in as close an imitation of Angel's height as he was capable of. Much to Bella's dismay, he mussed her hair.
Oh well, she thought. The bow was already askew from her romp across the lawn.
"My momma, that lady right there" -Emmett pointed at Esme- "said she should have named me after Satan himself."
Rolling her eyes, Bella went to greet her father. She hugged him, and when she pulled back, she gasped at the sight of the child clinging to Sue's hand. She hadn't had cause to see her brother since they'd left Charlie's house two and a half years before. He was a sturdy boy of three and some months now. He was cut leaner like a child instead of chubby as a baby.
He looked so much like Charlie.
"My goodness. Who is this strapping young man? Have you brought me a new hand to work the field, Dad?"
Billy grinned at this and stood up straighter. "I'm not a worker. Mommy said you're my brother. Like Seth."
"She's your sister, Goose," Seth said, shaking his head. He came came forward to hug Bella. "Heya, Sis."
"Hey, Squirt," she said, looking up pointedly.
She'd seen Seth the last time her father visited. Wherever Charlie went, Seth was generally beside him. Though too uneducated to make much of the figures in Charlie's ledger-though they were working on that-even at seventeen, Seth was good at the social parts of the business. Charlie had written her that the boy and his affable charm had been invaluable in smoothing the way in more than one transaction.
When Bella was younger, she'd often worried that she couldn't take care of her father, not being the son most men wanted. Though she was grown enough now to understand no son could have replaced her in his heart, she was glad for Sue, Seth, and Billy. Since she couldn't stay with him, she was glad he would never be alone.
Greetings done, the group headed into the house, Bella on Charlie's arm and Edward escorting Esme. The children, Angel, Billy, and Emmett and Rosalie's son Jacob were sent off to play.
It fell on Bella as hostess to see people to their rooms and show off the house under the guise of telling everyone where the necessities were located. As ridiculously nervous as she was, she felt it went well given that her advanced state of pregnancy left her constantly out of breath.
Esme did put her foot down, insisting Bella let all the women help her prepare dinner, decorum be damned. "Sit down," she said in that commanding voice that brooked no room for argument. "For heaven's sakes. No one expects you to feed a brood like this on your own."
So Bella ended up seated at the kitchen table with not much to do except peel potatoes for the next day's supper. Maybe she was matron of the house, but no one trumped Esme Cullen, to be sure.
It wasn't bad. Alice, Rosalie, and Esme kept her distracted from feeling useless by telling her of all the things they'd been up to lately.
Bella was pleased to hear that Rosalie and Emmett had rethought the idea of moving on to a larger city. As Edward had predicted, Carlisle couldn't be lured away from the role of doctor and so Emmett oversaw most of his father's lands as well as his own. Between that and his carpentry work, he was fast becoming wealthy in his own right.
Jasper too was beginning to build a fledgling business with his livestock. He was not as wealthy as his father-in-law and brother-in-law, but he was making his way. And Alice was keeping busy in spite of her heartbreak.
"I'm helping Ma organize schooling for the children in the district," she said. "We've raised the money for three schoolhouses so far."
Bella didn't miss the bittersweet note to her voice. It was difficult, she imagined, to teach other people's children when her own child was well beyond help.
"There isn't much more unfair than a mother without a child," Esme said quietly when Alice had excused herself for a moment. "She's still a mother, and I expect that's what hurts the most. Oh, Brandon. He was such a dear baby." She pressed her hand to her lips, overcome with emotion for a moment. "Sometimes I don't know how to tell her to hold on. I lost a child too after Emmett. That pain…" She shook her head, her eyes still closed. Even the memory of her pain was so strong, it hit Bella like a blow to the gut. She wrapped her arm around her belly as though she could protect her own son with her bare hands.
Esme took a deep breath. "But I had my little boy to care for. My sweet, rambunctious little boy. He was the reason I could breathe until I had Alice whole and healthy in my arms."
They were all startled to see Alice had appeared in the doorway, her eyes watery. She went to her mother, stopping her from apologizing, and took her hands. "I'll be a mother again. I'm not all right now, but I will be. I know that. And it's enough." She hugged her mother tightly and then looked to her sister-in-law. "Besides. I have Jacob to spoil for now, don't I?"
Rosalie chuckled. "Oh, goodness, you should see him, Bella." She shook her head, leaning forward to whisper in Bella's ear conspiratorially. "The boy runs straight to his auntie whenever he thinks Emmett and I are being too harsh, which is always."
Some hours later, they all set down for dinner. Bella sat back in her chair, watching everyone enjoy her food and hearth.
Beside her, Edward tilted his head down to whisper in her ear. "You're far away, love. What are you thinking about?"
She smiled, looking over the gathering. "I'm right here. I'm just…" She looked up at her husband, struggling to find the right words. "When I met you so long ago."
He winked at her, catching her note of teasing. "Oh so long."
"I was an only child, and you were an orphan. Now look at this. Look at our family." Not just friends. They were family. Despite the fact they'd been separated by years and miles, sitting at that table, she was part of a collective that couldn't be shaken. "It's just nice knowing there will be more days like this at our home or theirs."
Edward took her hand under the table and bent forward to kiss her-a soft, sweet kiss. "Bella, you and my babies are all I could ever need, but you're right. We became a family on that trail. All of us." He put a hand to her belly and smiled. "And now we have the rest of our lives to see how this family grows."
"It's a good life," she said.
"Yes. It is at that."
A/N: Oh, and later they heard that James died of dysentery. Because you can't have the Oregon Trail without someone dying of dysentery.
Thanks to jfka06, barburella, jessypt and songster for all their help. Thank you all for coming along for the ride and enjoying my dirty travelers so much.